Among the Ticuna
by Abbot James Wiseman, OSB
14 min. read — February 26, 2021
“We want her back here.” That’s what I remember her parents and her two brothers saying more than once, even as they pondered the possibility of legal action against people more than four thousand miles away, people they had never seen, never would see, and absolutely, most definitely did not want to see. How did it ever come to this? I’m just an outsider, at times possibly even suspected of being “on the other side” by a family I had known for years, ever since my childhood on a neighboring ranch in eastern Montana. Piecing the story together has been painful and even now resists full closure, but I will tell you what I know about Barbara Stevenson, who had been one of my best friends ever since grade school.
Barb wasn’t exactly a tomboy. She cherished fancy dresses, even as a kid liked to have her mom style her hair as best she could since there was no beautician within driving distance, and happily took piano lessons from Mrs. Wright, who’d drive over from her own ranch once a week for a period of three or four years. But none of that kept Barb from rivaling any of us boys in training horses or competing once a year in the junior rodeo, where we could show off our prowess and maybe even win a ribbon. She always won in the girl’s breakaway roping, and though we’d never admit it out loud, we were secretly glad that she wasn’t allowed to compete against us in saddle-bronc riding or tie-down roping.
If Barb gave us a run for the money in horsemanship, it was even worse in our county high school. Whether it was history or math or English, she was almost always the best, but the fact that she never flaunted her skills kept at bay any dislike we would otherwise have felt. By the time we neared graduation, almost every one of us boys thought there could be nothing better than marrying her as soon as he got a decent job and no longer had to rely on his folks to pay the bills. Once out of high school, some of my friends started working right away at the family ranch, expecting eventually to take over from their father, but most of us went on to community colleges in Billings, Great Falls, or Helena for courses in livestock management or some other kind of agribusiness.
Barb, however, had very different ideas. Having gotten to know Native American families on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations not far from her home, for years she had been telling us how much she wanted to actually live among indigenous peoples. Knowing that she’d need some medical training to be of much help to them, she enrolled in the four-year nursing program at Montana State University in Bozeman, and while there her horizon expanded far beyond what she had seen or imagined while growing up. Back home for the summer after her sophomore year, she told me that she had taken an elective in Latin American history and was especially intrigued by what she had learned about the people in the Three Frontiers region of the upper Amazon, where the borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil come together. For reasons she couldn’t fully explain, it was in this part of the world that she wanted to put her nursing skills to work. While minoring in Spanish, she learned that a summer institute at the University of Oklahoma offered a course called Conversational Ticuna, the principal language of the people of the Three Frontiers, so after leaving MSU with a B.S. in nursing she headed south to Sooner country to learn all she could about the Ticuna language and the culture of those who spoke it.
Whenever I’d visit her family during Barb’s summer in Oklahoma, I readily sensed that her parents, especially her mother, were not at all pleased with their daughter’s decision, but they had long since accepted the fact that Barb had a mind of her own and, as a young adult, could not be ordered to live and work closer to home. So it was with mixed feelings of pride and sadness that her parents and brothers, together with some of us who had known Barb since first grade, saw her off at the Billings airport in the fall of ‘62, the start of a long journey that took her first to Dallas, from there to Lima, and finally by a rickety bus to Iquitos, the main Peruvian city of the Three Frontiers, nestled on the right bank of the upper reaches of the Amazon.
Only rarely did I hear from her directly after that, but her mom willingly showed me Barb’s letters, full of details about life in a part of the world that we had only recently even heard of. Living in a rooming house on the western side of Iquitos, Barb first got to know some Ticuna people who had moved to the city in search of employment, but she soon met Maryknoll Missionary Sisters who worked mostly among the tribes living in villages downriver. It was among these that Barb most wanted to live, so after a few months she took her first trip down the Amazon with two Maryknollers who had already been in-country for about five years. What she found at the various landings were the luxuriant plants and fauna of the rain forest, and a peaceful, gentle people doing their best to survive by raising yams, manioc, maize, bananas, and other plants, fishing the river with spears or hooks or by placing weirs in the shallower waters, and hunting tapirs, sloths, peccaries, monkeys, and other small mammals. Their ancestors had hunted with ten-feet-long blowguns that fired darts tipped with a lethal, fast-working poison called curare, but nowadays most were using guns they got from river traders who showed up from time to time in their shallow boats. Money seldom changed hands in these transactions, but the traders were always interested in garments woven and decorated by women in the village or in the chickens or ducks raised by some of the families.
For many months Barb would make only brief stays at villages like Santa Inés and Buen Jardín before returning to Iquitos, but she became especially fond of the people in Paraíso and started spending more and more time there until finally she left the rooming house in Iquitos for good and settled in that village. Even if Paraíso didn’t live up to its paradisiacal name in all respects, the friendliness of the people, the children in particular, made up for the inconveniences of winter floods, year-round vexation from mosquitoes and gadflies, and the threat of disease from river water removed from a stove in the kitchen shed before it had boiled for at least five minutes. Trips back to Iquitos, now rare, gave Barb the opportunity to purchase nursing supplies with money donated by the Catholic parishes of Nuestra Señora del Amazonas and San Antonio de Padua, as well as Protestant churches like those of the Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists. She soon set up a small clinic in the village but at first found few clients. The three hundred villagers had previously relied on the local shaman when they fell ill and were suspicious of modern medicine even in the rudimentary form that Barb could offer, but as her treatments proved successful the lines at the clinic became longer and longer.
For three years Barb’s life became more and more enmeshed with that of the Ticuna. They had never been aggressively hostile toward outsiders, but they had heard of the depredations brought on by rubber barons at villages further downstream, and while they readily welcomed the teachings about Jesus that the Maryknoll missionaries offered them and readily accepted baptism and Christian names, they could never understand why Catholics and Protestants did not work harmoniously together. Barb seemed different from all others. She was accepting of everyone and wanted not only to live with the Ticuna full-time but to keep learning as much as she could about their customs and language. She never complained in the slightest if awakened in the middle of the night to help deliver a baby or assist someone who had come down with a fever or bad cough. The vivacious spirit that had marked her life back at the family ranch had followed her to the Amazon, so for festivities she gladly accepted the offer to wear colorful Ticuna garb and join in dances that retained a choreography going back two or three centuries.
Most of the villagers had become Catholic under the influence of the missionaries, and even though Barb had been raised Lutheran, she always attended the Sunday services held in a wooden, thatch-roofed chapel. These were marked by readings from the Bible, hymns sung to the accompaniment of native horns and rattles and much hand-clapping, and a short talk by one of the Ticuna catechists. All the villagers would listen intently, but Barb twice wrote home about her sense that all of them retained a firm belief in their ancestral religious traditions, with the goddess Ta’e guarding their land from her World Above and the immortal brothers Yo’i and Ip fending off demons in the Intermediate World and the World Below. About twice a year one of the priests from a parish in Iquitos would show up in a motorized boat to baptize the very young at the river bank and then hear confessions and celebrate Mass in the chapel. This gave Barb the chance to give him letters to take back to Iquitos for mailing and to catch up on news from the outside world, for her small transistor radio only rarely picked up a strong signal.
Barb’s first trip home after three years in Amazonia allowed her to visit family and friends throughout eastern Montana. She looked healthy, told funny stories about all the villagers in Paraíso, gave out gifts that had been made by the Ticuna—woven mats, small baskets, amulets, bracelets—and seemed especially eager to assure her parents and brothers that she was doing just what she had wanted, just what she had been training for.
To me, however, Barb revealed a more somber, less paradisiacal side of life in the village. Her letters home had been full of stories about how lively the children were, how eager they were to help in her nursing work in any way they could, and how proud they were in learning how to write simple stories in their native language as well as in Spanish. All too often, however, Barb said that she would have to help make small wooden coffins when one of the children died, often of dysentery or typhoid fever. The small cemetery on the outskirts of the village was even beginning to run out of space. One child in particular, Francisca, who was orphaned at age seven, had adopted Barb to be her mother and would be with her for hours on end, whether doing chores at the clinic or accompanying her on short strolls through the forest before supper. One morning, which happened to be Peruvian independence day, Francisca did not show up for the village celebration, and by noon she was spotted by another girl lying in the shade of a giant kapok tree, feverish and wanting nothing to eat or drink. When Barb was called to see her, she gave the child the best medications she could come up with, but there was no change for the better. During the night her suffering became worse, and just as the sun was rising Francisca breathed her last. Barb told me during her visit home that helping to make that little coffin was one of the hardest things she had ever done, but it made her all the more convinced that she had to return to Paraíso to do whatever she could to help other children grow to adulthood, all the while knowing that early deaths would always be a threat.
For me, her two months back home went by all too quickly. Again we saw her off at the Billings airport, looking forward to another visit after a few more years, with some of our group talking vaguely about visiting her in Amazonia, no doubt to ease the burden of having to say good-bye once more. I myself made no such promise: the move had seemed right for her, but with my schooling finished I was fully occupied helping my dad on the ranch, breaking in colts for him and neighbors so they could one day be used to herd cattle, and enjoying visits to rodeos and to Yellowstone and Glacier. Mrs. Stevenson still showed me her daughter’s letters, and I once even borrowed a library book with photos about the Amazon so as to get some sense of what the Three Frontiers area looked like, but I thought about my friend less and less as the months went by.
Barb’s letters had usually arrived about once every two months. In early November of 1968, a year marked by assassinations and violent protests in our own country, Mrs. Stevenson called me to say she had just received a phone call from Iquitos. I immediately figured that Barb had gone to the city for something and decided to call home. Instead, her mother said that she had received a phone call from a Fr. Ron Straub, one of the many U.S. priests who had answered Pope John XXIII’s request to help the Church in Latin America. Fr. Straub, now the pastor of Nuestra Señora del Amazonas parish, had called to say that Barb had suffered an attack of appendicitis and that sepsis had set in so intensely that she had died while being brought by canoe to a hospital in the city. At her death the Ticuna paddlers turned back and one of the catechists conducted a funeral service in the chapel where Barb had so often participated in Sunday services. This was held in the evening of the very day of her death, for the tropical heat made it impossible to postpone a funeral for more than a day. They buried Barb in the village cemetery, in a grave right next to that of little Francisca.
It was almost impossible to understand what Mrs. Stevenson was telling me on the phone, so distraught was she at learning of her only daughter’s sudden death. An added blow was hearing that Barb had been buried in the cemetery of a remote village thousands of miles from the ranch. In their grief, the father and mother felt that at the very least they must have Barb’s body brought back to Montana and buried in the family plot, just a short distance from the house. How, they asked me, could this be arranged? There was not even an American consulate in Iquitos that could have helped. I recommended that they have a Spanish teacher at the community college phone the coroner’s office in Iquitos to see if he could arrange for the transfer. The coroner, Saúl Mendoza Torres, was entirely sympathetic and had one of his associates travel to Paraíso to let the villagers know of the parents’ request. Two days later I learned that Señor Mendoza had himself gone down to the village, with all the equipment needed to bring Barb’s body safely back to the U.S. With the tribe gathered around, he had the grave excavated, but when he opened the coffin he found nothing inside but a few toucan feathers from the crown that had been placed on Barb’s head at the funeral. “How could this be?” he exclaimed. The villagers said that it was clearly the work of Ta’e, who had taken this beloved young woman to the World Above, leaving only a few feathers to serve as a memento of all that Barb had done for the Ticuna of Paraíso. Señor Mendoza, educated man that he was, could not believe this, but he also realized that there was nothing more he could do, so he thanked the natives for allowing him to come and hear for himself what a precious gift they had received during the years that Barb had lived and worked among them.
Learning all this, the Stevensons’ grief deepened, lingering long in their minds and hearts. Although there would be no more letters that they could share with me, I decided to visit them even more frequently than in the past, hoping in some small way to ease their suffering, which became all the greater as they came to realize they had no legal recourse for getting Barb’s body returned to Montana. I now had even less interest than ever before in visiting Amazonia and tried not to even think of the place. Then one day about a year later I received a phone call from Fr. Straub. He told me that a young teenager named Esteban, Francisca’s brother, had shown up at the rectory the day before. Knowing that the parish had generously provided funds for Barb’s clinic, he said that he finally had to let the priest know what had happened with her body. When the Ticuna had learned why the coroner was coming to visit them, they dug up the coffin and moved Barb’s remains to another site, whose location Esteban dared not reveal. He assured him, however, that Barb would never be forgotten by the people. Every four weeks, at the time of the full moon, one family of the tribe would take its turn to walk into the forest shortly before sunset, carrying a bouquet of flowers and a candle. Atop the grave, marked only with a wooden cross, they would place the flowers, light the candle, and spend some time praying not for, but to the one whom the villagers now called Santa Bárbara del Amazonas.